Written by Tania Lațici,
Strategic autonomy – what does it mean? what for? from whom? and how? – were some of the questions that were discussed during the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) online policy roundtable on strategic autonomy in security and defence and the EU’s role in promoting peace. This timely discussion took place in the backdrop of ongoing high-level strategic reflections, namely the Strategic Compass process in the European Union (EU), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO2030 process.
As the European Parliament is currently debating the implementation and future of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), as well as more precise initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), EPRS gathered a virtual panel covering the institutional, academic and think tank spectrum. Etienne Bassot, Director of Members’ Research Service in the EPRS, set the scene for the debate, and Tania Lațici moderated what was a highly dynamic and interactive debate.
Kicking off the discussion was Sven Mikser (S&D, EE), who is currently drafting the Parliament’s annual report on the implementation of the CSDP. Affirming that EU strategic autonomy is very high on the Parliamentary agenda, he noted that strategic defence capability gaps need to be filled for the EU to be able to meet its political and military levels of ambition. Sven Mikser also emphasised that the EU’s ambition is much broader than the military, also encompassing conflict prevention, multilateralism, disarmament and non-proliferation. He concluded by advising against giving in to the temptation of cutting defence budgets due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as that would impair capacity to properly address current threats.
Hannah Neumann (Greens, DE), the European Parliament’s rapporteur on arms exports, noted that there are more versions of what strategic autonomy means than there are Member States. She emphasised the need to clarify the purpose of strategic autonomy for the EU and highlighted the opportunity to make better use of the provisions in the Lisbon Treaty, for example, by making use of constructive abstention provisions or enacting majority voting when it comes to human rights violations. Hannah Neumann expressed hope that the Strategic Compass process would result in a better convergence of views among EU Member States as regards threats and addressing them.
While pointing out the importance of the current discussions of strategic autonomy at EU level, Dr Sven Biscop of the Egmont Institute argued that Member States should accept the reality that they can only be autonomous collectively. Referring to EU instruments such as PESCO, he noted that the EU is only currently using 10 % of the framework’s potential and argued in favour of integrating forces at the EU level. Reacting to the recent discussions on potentially making use of qualified majority voting (QMV) in foreign policy, Sven Biscop argued that there is no reason as to why the EU cannot vote with QMV on everything, except for obliging a Member State to commit troops to operations.
Representing the European External Action Service, Jean‑Pierre Van Aubel described the state of play of ongoing EU defence initiatives, with an emphasis on PESCO and its ongoing strategic review. On the latter, he noted that PESCO is much more than a capability development process and that discussions on how to better incentivise Member States to deliver on their commitments are ongoing. Regarding the Strategic Compass, he emphasised that its purpose is to translate the EU Global Strategy into concrete deliverables and political ambition to build a common European strategic culture.
Dr Jana Puglierin, the Director of the Berlin Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, observed that the progress and enthusiasm seen in the defence realm after 2016 seems to have hit a plateau, in part also as a result of the coronavirus crisis. She noted that foreign and defence policy does not seem to figure highly on the EU agenda and feared that uncoordinated defence budgets would result as a consequence of the Covid‑19 crisis. As regards transatlantic relations, Jana Puglierin emphasised the need for the EU to reflect on how to engage the United States in achieving its ambition for EU sovereignty.
Focusing on the changing nature of peace and security due to new threats and challenges –illustrated in particular by the coronavirus crisis – Dr Elena Lazarou, Acting Head of the EPRS External Policies Unit noted that the Lisbon Treaty was not written bearing these challenges in mind. She explained the reason for the EU’s current strategic reflection processes and emphasised that the EU will have to reflect on how it can use its entire toolkit of peace and security to address these threats and promote peace and security in a holistic manner. She also noted the importance of foresight in these processes and of the EU’s engagements with strategic partners such as the United Nations, NATO and the African Union.
Finally, the event gathered some 114 virtual participants at its peak and the audience engaged with the panellists by posing questions related to the current crisis in the eastern Mediterranean, the future of the EU’s strategic partnerships, and the prospects for QMV in foreign policy.